Chinchillas originate from South America where they live in colonies in the Andes. They were first domesticated in the 16th century in order to use their fur and they have become quite rare in the wild due the popularity of their pelt.

Chinchillas are strictly herbivorous meaning they naturally eat only plant matter. They are crepuscular - most active at dawn and dusk. Chinchillas are very entertaining pets though they have quite specific needs so it's vital to research them carefully first. They can live as many as 20 years so they are not a commitment to be taken lightly.

Housing your chinchillas

Chinchillas are very prone to chewing so should not be housed in a plastic cage. All-metal, barred cages provide good ventilation and opportunities for the chinchillas to climb and interact with you. As a minimum you should provide four cubic feet per chinchilla but we recommend nothing smaller than 12 cubic feet for a pair of chinchillas - more is much better. If the cage has a wire base, be sure to at least partially cover it or provide solid shelves so that the chinchillas don't have to spend too much time on the bare wire as this can cause foot problems. Chinchillas like to hop between ledges so generally prefer tall, thin cages to low, wide ones.

Your chinchillas will appreciate cage furnishings such as branches, tubes, ladders, ropes, wheels (solid, not barred) and nest boxes. Cardboard boxes and empty toilet or kitchen roll tubes can be a source of great entertainment. A sand bath should be placed in the cage at least twice a week to enable them to bathe and keep their fur in good condition. The cage should be placed away from direct sunlight or drafts. Never put the cage in a conservatory or sun lounge as chinchillas cannot sweat so can overheat quickly.

Substrate and bedding

It is very important to use the right type of substrate as the wrong material can have serious health implications. As a basic guide, paper and cardboard-based products are good (eg shredded paper, megazorb, finacard). Some paper based cat litters are ok but can be dusty or scented which isn’t ideal. Never use clay based litters, scented products or any product containing soft wood (eg wood based cat litters, sawdust and wood shavings). There is considerable evidence to suggest that these can cause liver and lung damage in small animals.

How often this bedding needs changing depends largely on the number of chinchillas you have and how much space they have. As a general rule though, you will probably want to do a full clean once a week (including washing down the floor, shelves and bars of the cage) and a smaller clean in between in which you clean out the most heavily soiled areas.

Chinchilla diet

Chinchillas have evolved to eat almost exclusively high fibre grasses. More easily digested foods such as seeds can make them overweight and sugary foods, including fruits, should be given only as occassional treats.

Your chinchilla's diet should be made up of around 80% good quality hay or grass, supplemented with a small amount of dry food and some fresh food. Chewing large amounts of fibrous material helps to keep their teeth in good condition. Without constant access to hay your chinchilla may develop dental disease, which will ultimately be fatal. The dry food should be pellets made from hay, not a muesli mix containing seeds and carbohydrates. Fresh food, such as leafy greens, herbs, cucumber and celery should be given regularly but only in small amounts to avoid stomach upsets.

Be cautious of commercially available treats which tend to be high in sugar. Treats are available now which are dried plant and herbs which are suitable but avoid things like yoghurt drops and nibble sticks.

Water should be provided in a bottle (not a bowl which will soon get messy) and should be changed daily.

Companionship

Chinchillas live in 'herds' in the wild so it is absolutely essential for their wellbeing that they have company of their own species. Introductions can be a little tricky so if you find yourself with a single chinchilla, be sure to seek advice when adding another.

Somewhat controversially, some people keep degus and chinchillas together. The company of another species will not replace company of their own kind but the two species can live very happily together, forming very close bonds.

Sexing your chinchillas

Sexing chinchillas is quite straightforward. Like all pet rodents, the females have visible genitals/urinary openings which can be confused with a penis. The important thing to look for is the size of the gap between this and the anus. In females, the two openings are very close together with no furred skin between the two. In males you will see a noticeable gap.

If you are not confident in sexing chinchillas, be sure to acquire your pets from someone who is. Pet shops often mis-sex rodents and, although chinchillas are not prolific breeders, they are hard to find homes for and there are many looking for homes in rescue centres so please do all you can not to add to the over population problem. If you find you have chinchillas of both genders, please seek help from a specialist rodent rescue urgently. Bear in mind that pet shops, vets and rescues which do not specialise in rodents may not be able to determine the gender of rodents reliably.

Interacting with your chinchillas

Chinchillas are not a species which are likely to enjoy sitting on your lap and having a cuddle. However, you can certainly build a good relationship with your chinchilla and they may then enjoy chin tickles and using you as a climbing frame during free range! Begin by making friends with your chinchillas while their feet are on the ground by offering them treats (a small quantity of pumpkin seeds works well) and talking softly to them. You can initially encourage them to walk into a tube and then from the tube on to your hand or lap if they are nervous about being picked up. Once they are out you can get them used to being handled by scooping them with both hands rather than “grabbing” them. Always handle your chinchillas sitting down, ideally on a bed or sofa so they have a soft landing if (when!) they jump. Never pick your chinchillas up by or hold on to their tails.

Chinchillas are active, intelligent animals so it’s important that they get exercise and mental stimulation or they can display frustrated behaviour such as bar chewing or fur pulling. Ideally your chinchillas should be handled and given the chance to explore outside of their cage every day. This should be in a safe, secure area where things which may harm them such as heavy objects they might knock over, other pets, electrical wires, potential toxins and sharp objects are removed. Bear in mind that chinchillas can get into small gaps and will seek to do so if scared. So be sure to check for gaps under furniture for example before letting them loose.

Chinchilla health

Your chinchillas should be handled daily and as part of this you should perform a health check. Check eyes and nose for any discharge and listen to their breathing (noisy breathing could suggest a respiratory problem). Chinchillas are especially prone to dental problems so it's a good idea to weigh them weekly as weight loss could be a sign of dental issues or other health problems. Loss of co-ordination, pawing at the mouth, drooling and increased thirst are also possible signs of illness.

Chinchillas are classed as an exotic pet and your average vet may not have much experience of caring for them. So, before your chinchilla gets ill, take some time to find a vet who is confident in their treatment.


This information is intended as a basic guide to caring for this type of animal. If you intend to get some chinchillas please ensure you research their needs thoroughly and that you can offer them everything they need for the duration of their lifespan. If you have any questions which are not covered here you are very welcome to Email us.